What Just Happened Here?

Browsing through today’s PennLive, counted not one, not two, not three, but seven (and a half) crime stories pertaining to Harrisburg from the past 24 hours:

A woman was mugged in the River Street Garage (the one on Second; no idea why they chose to name it after the small alley that runs behind it rather than the major thoroughfare that runs in front of it, but I digress), a c-store clerk was robbed, a guy was mugged with a brick, a dude was assaulted in a park near Italian Lake, a teen’s laptop was stolen while he was using it, some dude kicked a woman in the face and stole her purse, and a guy was stabbed while walking around.  The “and a half” comes from a Harrisburg guy who was charged with breaking into an apartment in Carlisle.  And again, this was all reported in a 24-hour period.

Naturally, the PennLive West Shore Trolls did not hesitate to blame this on Linda Thompson / Barack Obama / the Democrats / the Liberals / “those people” / people who don’t listen to Glenn Beck.  But the real question remains unanswered — what just happened?

Was this a statistical fluke?  It’s possible, but unlikely.  True flukes don’t happen often, even with as broad a subject as “crime”.  And when they do, they’re often small blips on the radar.  More often than not, there exists an underlying foundation of causes (important distinction:  “causes”, not “justifications”).  Each cause may only be small — an employer notifying its employees of layoffs, a local bank deciding it can no longer delay foreclosures, perfect weather, a speech, a song, and so on.  If you imagine a scale weighing people’s conscious, moral decision to behave well on the left, and all the factors contributing to bad behavior on the right, and the causes as weights of varying sizes, you can see how a combination of seemingly-unrelated occurrences can impact our daily lives.

Does this represent an editorial shift at the Patriot-News or PennLive?  There have been accusations in the past that the Patriot News and/or PennLive and/or the Mayor’s office fail to report on a lot of significant crimes in the city.  Without only hearsay and anecdotal evidence, I can’t speak to the veracity of those claims.  But if they were true, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time a media outlet or political figure has been ensnared in a egregious conflict of interest.  In the old days of print media, there used to be a reasonable explanation for limited crime reporting:  the amount of space on the paper.  Today, you can look at the Harrisburg Police Department’s preliminary reports and see for yourself.

Is regional crime really accelerating this quickly?  Or, more importantly, is Harrisburg accelerating any faster than the surrounding municipalities?  Probably.  It’s a city; comparing it to Camp Hill or Wormleysburg or Linglestown is laughable at best.  Looking at the big picture, violent crime dipped about 5.5% nationwide in 2009, though it’s still a little to early to get a clear picture.  Statistics being what they are, however, we’re still left without any real insight into what — if anything — is happening.

The actual answer lies somewhere in a combination of the above.  Economic and social factors play significant roles in molding the crime rate, while the reporting policies of our media outlets and elected officials deeply affect how much we’re made aware of.  All of this, of course, is a fancy way of saying “I don’t get paid enough to figure this out.”  The only definitive statement I can make is that this is why I went back to renting, rather than purchasing another home in midtown.  The city’s finances — those economic reasons we were just talking about — are going to play a massive role in how the coming years play out.  And until we get those in order, there is absolutely no way I am going to stake a mortgage to any municipality in Dauphin County.

Is Harrisburg a bad place to live?  Not at all.  We have a collection of vibrant neighborhoods in midtown, decent employment opportunities, a location central to larger metropolitan areas AND rural countryside, and enough infrastructure to weather any storm that comes our way.  I will continue to rent in the city until the bullets start flying through my balcony door.  The one true question, then, is as follows:

Is Harrisburg entering the 1970s again?

3 thoughts on “What Just Happened Here?”

  1. Standard disclaimer if anyone’s reading this who does not know me: I used to be a crime reporter at The Patriot-News, but left Harrisburg and the paper about four months ago. And I’d also make the disclaimer that I’m only speaking for myself, and I really have no incentive or disincentive to take any particular position on this…I just want to share my perspective and add to the discussion.

    That said, a few thoughts:

    1) I had many busy days like this when I was reporting there. This is not too far out of the ordinary, except that these particular crimes are a tad juicier than what you’d see on a normal day.

    2) I never witnessed any pressure from any level of management to change the approach to what was newsworthy on the cops beat…it’s always been simply a matter of what’s interesting/important. If such a shift were to have happened because of Mayor Thompson’s arrival, it would have been done on my watch. And knowing me, you can be very sure that had I received any unethical commands of the sort from above, I would have told them to shove it. It never happened.

    3) One thing I will give Mayor Thompson and Chief Ritter credit for: I found the police department to be more open with the press than it was during the Reed administration. It was Reed that opened up the blotter to the web, but I (anecdotally and unscientifically) found that the department is now sending out more releases on “smaller” incidents. That would account for an unusually busy crime day on PennLive…each of those stories you linked is a standard rewrite of a press release. In fact, you can read the eight press releases the department sent out today here. If you check back to that page, it’ll almost always mirror what you find on PennLive.

    So I think what you saw today was, actually, a statistical fluke. I think they happen more often than you think, and there very well may be just two crime stories on PennLive tomorrow. I’m sure you know I’m far from a Patriot-News apologist…I just think, based on my experience, that you can rule out the media angle as an explanation.

  2. I’m gonna disagree with Daniel. While I’m not discounting his credibility I think some of the Patriot News people are at wits end with Linda and have decided to “let the people know” how much crime happens on a daily basis in Harrisburg. I lived there for 7 years on 3rd street and saw/reported many fights, muggings, hearing shots being fired. I’ve now lived on the West Shore for 3 years and since have reported a downed power line.

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